When mid-December rolls around, bird watchers make plans to get out and count birds, participating in one or more Christmas Bird Counts. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running citizen science wildlife census in the world. Administered by the National Audubon Society, the data collected by CBC participants for over a century are among the largest resources informing ornithologists and conservation biologists about how the birds of the Americas are faring over time. Last year there were 447 Christmas Bird Counts in Canada, 1,933 in the United States, and 156 in locations in Latin America and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands
Whether you are a relatively new birder or an expert, you can participate in the Christmas Bird Count and contribute important data – all you have to do is join a CBC. Participants are divided up into sections to cover the 15-mile diameter count circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. What if the day is cold and/or rainy? The bird watchers will be outside anyway, but if you live within the count circle and have a feeder or bird bath you can participate from the warmth of your home by counting your birds. Travis Audubon has a list of central Texas CBCs. All CBCs across the nation are conducted from December 14 to January 5.
Three beautiful duck species are now back in Austin for the winter. With a little bit of effort you should be able to find Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead and Northern Pintail. The males are the star attractions since they are strongly marked; the females are much more muted in coloration.
The Hooded Merganser is a small elegant duck with a thin serrated bill. In fact some hunters call it a “sawbill.” The “hood” is a crest that can be raised like a fan. When the male raises the crest to show off a white tear-shaped oval outlined in black, this bird is unmistakable. The adult male also has a black head and neck, two black spurs on the sides of its breast, a chestnut body and a black back. The female has a brownish cinnamon-colored crest and a dark gray body with a darker saddle. The Hooded Merganser is a diving duck. Some of its favorite foods are crawfish, small fish, aquatic insects and amphibians. Good places to look for Hooded Merganser include small wooded lakes and retention ponds, although they can sometimes be found on larger bodies of water like Devine Lake in Leander and Lake Pflugerville in Northeast Austin.
The Bufflehead is reminiscent of the toy rubber ducky. It is a small diving duck that is extremely buoyant, disappearing under the water only to pop back up like a cork. From a distance the male looks black and white, with a large white patch on the rear of its head, a white body, black back and black forehead and neck. Close up and in good light, the male’s head has a purple/green glossy sheen. The female is drab gray/brown with a horizontal white cheek patch. You can find Bufflehead on the Colorado River, on larger retention ponds such as those in the Onion Creek neighborhood, and on area lakes.
While both Bufflehead and Hooded Merganser populations appear healthy, a third gorgeous duck that winters here, the Northern Pintail, has experienced steep population declines since the 1960s. The male is easy to identify with its long neck, long pointed tail, white breast, and a distinctive white stripe that extends into its chocolate brown head. The female is plain, with a long neck and a tan face with no markings. These ducks have been recently seen at Devine Lake, Lake Pflugerville, and at the Colorado River below Longhorn Dam
Both Bufflehead and Hooded Merganser are diving ducks. Unlike dabbling ducks, including the Northern Pintail, the legs of diving ducks are set further back on their bodies. This makes it difficult for them to walk on land. When they fly, they have to patter across the water to get airborne. Dabbling ducks can take off with no fanfare. An interesting characteristic of dabbling ducks is that they “tip up” to feed, so that their rear ends are often all you see. It’s fun to begin to notice whether you are looking at diving or dabbling ducks.